If you are a member of a group in America that is viewed with disdain by conservatives, there are few faster ways to career advancement than to espouse the views of those same conservatives. You will be hugely rewarded with political support, jobs, and media visibility on conservative outlets like Fox News. Conservatives will gratefully accept the chance to have people of color spout derogatory statements about other people of color, since this enables them to get those views out but provides them immunity from the charge of racism.
The dirty secret is that you do not have to search hard to find members of the south Asian community who are willing to play along. Within the South Asian community there is a strain of anti-black racism and color prejudice that runs through it. Jeet Heer exposes this ugly underbelly in a good article titled How to Make It in Conservative America (If You Aren’t White) that I found rang true to my own experience. He looks at the problem in general but focuses on how some South Asian conservatives have used that racism to advance their careers by ingratiating themselves with the very people who despise their heritage. If you are willing to be such a tool for them, you can go places by being willing to be co-opted to serve their purposes.
Heer focuses some attention on Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley but spends the bulk of his essay on the odious Dinesh D’Souza who seems to have cottoned on early while in college that he could get mentors who could advance his career if he was willing to say the things that they themselves could not say for fear of being called racist, and he soon came under the wing of a professor of English Jeffrey Hart who also was a senior editor at National Review.
In 1975, Hart published a startling review of Jean Raspail’s xenophobic novel The Camp of Saints, a didactic tract warning of the dangers of mass immigration from India and other poor countries. The novel celebrates the heroism of a ragtag band of right-wing heroes (including a tank commander and a duke) who wage a sniper campaign against the refugees. “In this novel Raspail brings his reader to the surprising conclusion that killing a million or so starving refugees from India would be a supreme act of individual sanity and cultural health,” Hart wrote in a National Review rave (September 26, 1975) that compared the book to modern masterpieces by James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence. “Raspail is to genocide,” Hart continued, “what Lawrence was to sex.”
Hart’s praise of Raspail’s novel might seem at odds with his sponsorship of D’Souza’s career. But even in reviewing The Camp of Saints, Hart distinguishes between good immigrants who assimilate to white culture and the refugee horde who must be exterminated. As Hart notes, Raspail’s novel features a character named Hamadura, “a very black Indian” who “has lived in France and become completely assimilated by Western Civilization.” As the character notes: “Being white isn’t really a question of color. It’s a whole mental outlook.” In his prize student D’Souza, Hart found his own version of Hamadura: a “very black Indian” who has the mental outlook of a white conservative.
Anti-black racism, I’ve often thought, is one of the more unwholesome manifestations of assimilation. If blacks are near the bottom of the perceived racial hierarchy across North America, some enterprising immigrants find it useful to step on blacks as a way of climbing higher.
Racism among South Asians has some peculiar qualities; it’s not so much hatred of the other but the hatred of the almost-the-same, akin to a sibling rivalry. At the heart of this sort of immigrant racism is the desire to differentiate oneself from the group one could easily be identified with.
D’Souza’s racism makes sense if we view it as part of his long effort to succeed in a right-wing milieu that is both anti-Indian and anti-black. Within that context, D’Souza has given saliency to anti-black racism to compensate for a potentially embarrassing background as a Mumbai-born immigrant. Is D’Souza sincere in his beliefs or simply an intellectual mercenary? It’s impossible to know for sure. What can be said with certainty is that as an Indian willing to voice anti-black sentiment, D’Souza has carved out a lucrative niche for himself, enjoying a national audience from the time he was an undergraduate.
Color-based racism is endemic on the sub-continent, where people perceive a huge range of colors within the range of brown, with lighter-skinned people being seen as more attractive even if the differences are slight. When a baby is born, the first thing that people look at is the color. Of course, we know that a newborn’s color may not remain the same as the child grows to adulthood, so there have grown various pieces of folklore that claim to predict the adult color, such as the color of the fingernails.
The irony is that there is no doubt that Asians in the US have benefited greatly because of the civil rights struggle engaged in by African Americans. African Americans expanded the Overton window on racial acceptance and that has resulted in south Asians in particular being seen as the ‘good’ people of color. As Heer says:
D’Souza and many others have benefited from the African American Civil Rights Movement. Prior to 1965, America set severely restrictive quotas on immigration from non-white countries such as India. The creation of a more generous and less racist immigration policy came about as a direct result of civil rights agitation and the work of liberals such as Ted Kennedy. Going back at least a century, South Asians and African-Americans have made common cause in fights against colonialism and racism: It’s no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. cited Gandhi as a predecessor, or that Bayard Rustin supported Indian independence.
But rather than being grateful to the African Americans who struggled and suffered for the civil rights that we have so benefited from, these south Asians like D’Souza and Jindal and many lesser-known people now act as if they achieved their success independently of that struggle.